The Ain Breira Syndrome

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

(Given the ever growing frustration we all feel regarding the welfare of the State of Israel, I hope this article will help make the situation more understandable. This article was originally published in the Op Ed section of the July 25, 2007 edition of The Jewish Press).

I have always felt myself to be the older brother of a younger sister, The State of Israel. Born a few years prior to her birth, I still feel the thrill of her emergence upon the stage of world nations.

I was born in a time filled with depression and sorrow in the Jewish world. The Holocaust was fresh in everyone’s mind. I can still hear the anguish in the tears and screams of the Congregation at Yizkor on Yom Kippur at the Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst when the Chazan would intone the Memorial prayer for the Six Million. The room was filled to overflowing. Many in the Congregation had lost their brothers and sisters, cousins, and even their entire family, tortured and murdered by the Nazis. The Chazan’s plaintive voice conjured up in their minds the Holy faces of those who had died for the sanctification of G-d’s name. As a child I could feel the palpable pain that hung as a dark cloud over the Congregation. I felt it pressing upon my shoulders as I clung to my Grandfather for comfort. When Yizkor was concluded everyone was visibly exhausted from the ordeal. I shall never forget this abyss of sorrow that swallowed up young and old in the collective horror of the Holocaust revisited.

Countering this was the ecstasy we all felt in the fledgling State of Israel. Holding on to a precarious existence, flanked by enemies on every side, Jews nevertheless felt a joy they hadn’t felt for centuries. Our hearts burst with pride when we gazed upon the noble Israeli, tilling the soil with one hand and defending it with the other. These proud idealistic Jews gave us a sense of dignity and worth we desperately needed, specifically in the aftermath of World War II. While there was concern expressed regarding the viability of the State, it was overshadowed by the sense that Israel was founded on the bedrock of miracles. Even the most secular, willingly quoted from the Prophets.

The frontier spirit burned in the Sabra as it did in the Jew in Galut. But, just as that frontier spirit faded in the United States in the late 1800s, it began to fade in Israel as well. Today a kibbutznik no longer tills the soil. He is helping to produce micro chips. Those who still cultivate the land do so from air-conditioned tractors. And, like the United States, once the frontier spirit is gone, all the negative elements of existence become more pronounced. For Israel this meant the horrific reality of living in a hostile neighborhood with little possibility of crafting a peace with its neighbors. Slowly, the momentary joy of its establishment gave way to the melancholy of day to day life. In recent years Arab nationalism has been replaced by religious fervor. The situation has become ever more glum. Dar Al Islam, the territory of Islam, can never permit a sovereign Jewish State in its midst.

And so the Ain Breira syndrome manifested itself. We saw it at work in Prime Minister Barak’s attempt to extract a peace from Arafat by surrendering to him more than Arafat had requested. And yet no peace emerged. A classic example of this malady that is afflicting many of our brothers and sisters in Israel and in the Galut is the about face Prime Minister Sharon exhibited in his stance relative to territory and settlements.

Not too long ago, when Mr. Sharon never thought he would be elected Prime Minister of Israel, he was dubbed the “father of the settlements”. Mr. Sharon took upon himself the responsibility to raise funds for the settlements. During his stay in Chicago I accompanied him on several occasions. He would wax poetic describing the settlers as the modern day kibbutzniks, the best of Israeli society who, in his view, were the greatest protectors of the Jewish State. Every settlement was precious to him and in his various capacities in Israel he used every ounce of his strength to advance the number of settlements. Yet, as Prime Minister, he gave up Gaza even going so far as to forcibly remove the same Jewish settlers he had praised. What happened to him? The answer is the Ain Breira syndrome.

The standard bearer of nineteenth century German Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his classic work “The Nineteen Letters”, in describing human existence as having been reduced to “physical enjoyment”, then explains the role of the Jewish People among the nations of the world.

“Therefore there would be introduced into the ranks of the nations one People which would demonstrate by its history and way of life that the sole foundation of life is God alone…”

He then clarifies the reality of Jewish suffering throughout the centuries, “The objective required a nation that was poor in everything upon which the rest of mankind builds its greatness and the entire structure of its life. To all appearances being at the mercy of other nations armed with self-reliant might, it was to be directly sustained by God Himself, so that, in manifestly overcoming all opposing forces, God would stand revealed as the sole Creator, Judge and Master of history and nature.” Essentially Rabbi Hirsch declared that the Jewish People finds its strength in what conventional wisdom views as weakness!

The frustrations of almost sixty years of Jewish Statehood, the unwillingness of the nations of the world to, once and for all, side with this island of democracy in a sea of hate and violence now spilling over to infect Europe and even The United States, is explained by Rabbi Hirsch’s insightful understanding of the nature of Jewish life. True, the Jew lives in this physical world but his future and his very safety ultimately are not dependent upon conventional wisdom but rather upon a metaphysical connection with God, which, through all the trials and tribulations endured, vouchsafes our existence and future.

And so Sharon’s action is easily understood. By not subscribing to the Jewish condition ordained by G-d he could only see Israel’s future through the conventional function of states. Gaza was boiling over with hate. Hamas was passionately supported by the populace. What future was there in having Jewish enclaves in a hostile environment requiring the massive deployment of Israeli military to protect a rather modest Jewish presence? Ain Breira – there is no choice, we simply must pull out hoping that we can contain Hamas and work out some kind of compromise.

Judaism is not a passive religion. Rabbi Hirsch surely isn’t teaching us that we should be content to allow the world to have total sway over our existence; to be the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. Halacha, Jewish law, requires self defense, even codifying a permitted war and a mandated war. Ultimately, however the Jewish future lies in our steadfastness in Faith, in fulfilling G-d’s Will. A Jewish State unwilling to factor in to its decision making the very purpose of the Jewish People becomes overwhelmed with the reality of its situation. Ain breira, compromise after compromise, with little, if any hope for a positive result seems to be the only alternative for those who do not embrace the unique role of the Jewish People.

It is time that Israel move from being a State of Jews to a Jewish State guided by the destiny that G-d has prepared for all of us.